Working For US Military in Iraq – Some Reflections

DSC_0372This article was originally published on Brave New World’s website

After invading Iraq in 2003, the American troops needed assistance, and a large number of national staff was employed to help the often ill-equipped young soldiers with the cultural and linguistic challenges they faced. Being a part of the American military was often dangerous, sometimes lethal; many Iraqis who took on this mission were murdered by militias. Still local staff was easy to recruit: the jobs were well-paid and the inflation was sky-rocketing why other jobs hardly could make you earn a living.

I wanted to know how someone who was working for the Americans now is reflecting over the time served, 11 years after the invasion. And so someone put me in touch with Louis Yako.

Louis is a bit reluctant at first when we speak. He points out to me that I as a non-Iraqi will write about an Iraqi rather than the Iraqi writing the piece himself, and we end up speaking about the problematic issue of me as a white woman portraying Middle Easterners.

“When a Middle Eastern person is being interviewed it’s handled as a story,” he says.

He’s right; how often do you see a blog from the Middle East discussing Europe? But Louis still gives me the confidence to write about him and his experiences.

Even though he was only 21, with a BA in English literature from the University of Baghdad Louis was an attractive candidate for the Americans. And for him, his university had closed following the collapse of the infrastructure, and he was looking for a job.

“I didn’t understand much about was what at stake,” he says. “I wanted to practice my English, I was a young person.”

He got himself a job as a linguist in Kirkuk, one of the most violent-ridden cities after 2003; also his hometown. He spent in total two years working as a linguist, translator and local government specialist for US army, USAID and the US consulate. The duties varied but included working with the combat forces when they went to the villages to look for suspects. Two years later Louis had to leave the country:

“I was threatened personally because I worked for US army”, he says, without wanting to dwell more on the subject.

He has never been back.

Louis also had colleagues that were murdered, just like I had when working for a humanitarian NGO, even though my colleague was not killed due to his work but due to his religious belonging. We discuss this and the many Iraqis that have been killed by their fellow countrymen since 2003 when militias started their ruling by fear. But still so, and even though Louis had to flee his own country, he doesn’t want to fall into simple explanations.

“If we’re talking about the killers as ‘bad guys’ we’re using a slippery term. Nobody is truly good or evil; nobody is truly innocent or guilty. Once you call someone a bad guy; once you demonize somebody, you can easily apply your agenda on that person. We need to always understand before we use such adjectives.”

So what is his opinion now about the US invasion? He has a different take on it than the very obvious aspect of the actual war; instead the starting point to him is the many malls and American coffee shops that have popped up in no time, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Erbil, mall after mall is being established to meet the needs of both local people with new money, but also the many expats that have arrived with the contracting agencies and NGOs establishing in the region, sometimes spending their salaries of lunatic standards.

“The real invasion was cultural, economic, and political,” Louis says. The military was paving the way for something much bigger than that. Real invasion is when malls, Starbucks, and other corporations of what I call the ‘transnational mafia’ mushroom, things you haven’t made with your own expertise and by your own raw materials. If you don’t understand that you’re being duped you cannot do something about it. The first step is to understand that you’re not free.” He points out: “I’m talking in a global way, not only Iraqi.”

I want to know how he sees Iraq before 2003 and he wants me to think twice about my question. He wants to shift the focus from the issue of the previous regime versus the country after the invasion:

“We are often forced to compare Iraq between the previous regime and the invasion, as if there is no other option. Let’s put that aside. Yes, Iraq was much safer and it was one nation before the war. But as for killing dissidents, for example, they kind of do that all over the world in any regime. Have a look at Snowden for example.

Iraqis could have liberated themselves, but the West’s support of the previous regime made it impossible. The West always talks about the liberation of women – that’s bullshit. Women cannot be free in a society that is occupied and not free. The ‘women card’ is always played when they want to invade a country. But women’s freedom is inseparable from men’s freedom.

As an Iraqi in the middle of the invasion you didn’t have an agency, and if you did it was because you were a convenient actor in the game. The average Iraqi in the middle of the street has nothing to say. Some voices are purposely unheard.”

We come to talk about the international aid to Iraq and how effective it really is. I ask him what kind of support he thinks the country would really benefit from.

“The concept of support from the outside needs to be reexamined,” he says. “True support can only take place when any two parties are allowed to negotiate on equal grounds.”

“In what ways?”

“Well if I have to take your ideas and they become my reality that is not support, that is very dangerous– indoctrination. So far I haven’t seen two groups treating each other equally. The withdrawal of the US troops is irrelevant; it’s the systems that are important. The soldiers are like any regular employees doing their job. They don’t have much power or say on what should happen none of them. The US presence in Iraq is not military based; it’s political, in the oil fields, in the malls. It makes Iraqis sedated consumers instead of produce what we need by ourselves.”

Now a PhD student in cultural anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina, and also an American citizen, Louis was able to get out of the dangerous situation he once was in when he received a Fulbright scholarship to Lehigh University. But he points out that he was one of few and says that it was a bottleneck, where some threatened local staff with the US army got out and some didn’t.

Still he doesn’t regret his work experience with them or the missions he carried out. What is bothering him today is that the fatal consequences of the US invasion of Iraq doesn’t seem to interest people anymore.

“The US invasion is fading away as if it didn’t happen, that’s discouraging. Not because we always want Iraq to be on the front pages but because the lessons experienced should not be forgotten, in order not to repeat the same mistakes. It’s important for humanity. International conflicts are all connected to Iraq, even before there was the invasion of Iraq, you can’t separate them. I’m totally worried that forgetting Iraq is confirming what Hegel says…”

Louis pauses and asks me if I know what Friedrich Hegel says. I don’t, so he tells me:

“‘The only thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.

Photo credit: Louis Yako

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Photos of Iraqi Beauty Queens

The beauty queen contest was once a natural part of the Iraqi society and the country is still represented in international beauty contests, at the moment being by Ruth Benyamin. But it’s no longer possible to hold the competition in Iraq. Here are some glimpses of former Iraqi beauty queens.

Thank you Talat Model Management for allowing me to publish these photos!

renee dangoor 2

1947: Renee Dangour, the first Miss Iraq

1972: Iraq’s Maiden of Beauty Contest. Wijdan Sulyman, no 19, won the pageant and went on to represent Iraq in Miss Universe the same year

1972: Miss Iraq Wijdan Sulyman in the middle, during the Miss Universe Pageant in Puerto Rico

Miss Iraq’s logo 1987-2006

 

Photo credit: Talat Model Management

I Love My City Damascus

View from 4 Seasons Hotel in Damascus

News from Damascus are always depressing nowadays. But it used to be a vibrant city, full of life. When I lived there last year the fear of the war was present in the city, but here are the words of a young woman from Damascus and how her life used to be before the war.

“I grew up in Damascus and when we went to visit the village my parents came from, I just wanted to go back home. My parents’ village is beautiful, green and with fresh air, but it’s not like the city. In Damascus I had everything; freedom and friends.

Summers were the best. My cousin was older and worked in Saudi Arabia and used to come home for vacation in the summers. She got divorced and when she came home she wanted to have a good time, to live a free life, a life she couldn’t live over there. When she was in Damascus I packed a bag with all my stuff and moved in with her. She rented a flat downtown and I stayed with her there all summer. My family was angry with me for moving out from them, they thought my cousin had bad influence on me, but there was nothing they could do. I had become so independent from them since I started working and making my own money.

Me and my cousin never cooked, we just ordered take out to the house or went to restaurants. We went to the swimming pools somewhere in the city and ordered sheesha. In the evenings we went clubbing, there were many nightclubs to go to, and there were always a lot of guys after us. We had a good time with them, we let them pay for everything, then when we got bored with them we just hopped in a taxi and left” (she shows how they teasingly waved goodbye from the car window while laughing) “We never talked politics back then. She supported the president, she thought it was because of Bashar al Assad that she could live a free life in Syria comparing to the life she had as a divorced woman in Saudi Arabia. I was against Assad, just like my father was, but me and my cousin never spoke about it. We just had a great time together. I loved my city.”

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

I’m Not a Racist

medium.com

Who admits himself that he’s a racist? No one I hang out with. Recently there has been a lot of talk about the neo-Nazi movement and Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden, but today I want to shed light on our everyday racism. It’s easy to bash the extremists but the prejudices amongst us common people can be worse: so hard to point out but still building hate among us.

In my teenage years I had a friend who was a good, white girl from an academic family, whom seemed to like me for reasons I couldn’t figure; me with my poor school attendance, my many boyfriends and heavy make-up. But I liked her too and we stayed friends up until our university years. What bothered me though, were her intolerant comments. “Slimy Turks” she would call all young immigrant guys she came across. My boyfriends if they were foreigners were all potential rapists, no matter if she had ever met them. “They do that in their countries,” she just said, not specifying what countries she meant. At the same time she was organizing demonstrations against racism, and at university enrolled in a project for immigrants and Swedes to meet where she was handed an “immigrant friend” (that’s a topic for another blog post) whom she went out for coffee with. In her middle class world, this combination was perfectly fine.

I didn’t have the knowledge on how to battle her comments in my teens but I used to ask her if the guys she had just called slimy Turks were from Turkey, each time she came up with the statement.

“I don’t know,” she’d always reply.

“So don’t call them Turks,” I said.

After a while she stopped using that label around me. But with other friends she continued her ways and they defended her when I brought up the subject of her intolerance.

“Immigrants are like that, Jenny!” a common friend once told me in an irritated tone. “Guys tries to touch you when you go clubbing, the girls are bitches.”

She knew this was a touchy subject as I myself had been spat in the face by an immigrant girl on the subway when in high school, for no reason at all but me being Swedish.

“But not all of them,” I said.

“No, but the absolute majority!”

This bothered me more and more the older we got and the comments didn’t decrease. Her surroundings didn’t become more mixed, it rather intensified the white middle class that she had been brought up with, but I hoped education would make her reconsider things. It didn’t and she just picked up more subjects to complain about, such as Arabs all marrying off their daughters in arranged marriages and immigrant women having no hobbies but childrearing and house chores.

I have my prejudices too, I admit it, but I try to work on them and she just stayed the same. Then one day I just lost patience. I stopped taking her calls and messages. I left her disappointed and wondering why I dropped our friendship after so many years without explanation. Today I wonder how I could be her friend for so long in first place. People with these views create hate, which leads to more hate, which leads to justified racism. How nice and sweet and active in anti-racism demonstrations they might be. Nothing good ever comes out of that hypocrisy at all.

Photo credit: medium.com